1974: Khosrow Golsorkhi and Keramat Daneshian, Iranian revolutionaries

Add comment February 18th, 2018 Headsman

Death is our most modest gift to the people. Each death is a small window closing on nihilism. And each death is a panel of mystery closing on lies, corruption, poverty, and hunger. Thus, a window will open that lets in the light of life. Let us sacrifice our life for this light — this light.

People’s Fadaee, Keramat Daneshian
February 8, 1974

Khosrow Gol(e)sorkhi* and Keramat Daneshian, poets and revolutionaries, were shot on this date in 1974 by the Shah of Iran.

Stock of a provincial family with ties to the Communist Tudeh party, Golsorkhi — much the more famous of the two — became a noted writer of radical prose and poetry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Their defiance — Golsorkhi’s especially — of a military court trying them on a trumped-up charge of attempting to kidnap Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi‘s son made them Che Guevara-like figures for young Iranian leftists of the time.**

Badly misreading the direction of the wind, the Shah televised their prosecution as a show trial — and the poets used the platform to completely upstage not only their judges but the rotting monarchy they were there to uphold. Farsi speakers can enjoy Golsorkhi on video —

— while this version has English subtitles:

by Khosrow Golsorkhi
(translated by Sherry Laici)

The teacher was shouting at the board.
He flushed angrily
and his hands were covered with chalk dust.
The students in the last row of seats were eating fruits and making noises;
on the other side of the class a student was flipping through a magazine.
None of the students were paying attention
because the teacher was shouting and pointing to the algebraic equations.

The teacher wrote on the blackboard, which reminded us of darkness and cruelty,
one is equal to one.

One of the students rose
(always one must rise)
and said softly,
“The equation is a blunder.”

The teacher was shocked
and the student asked,
“If one human being was one unit
Does one equal one, still?”
It was a difficult question and the students were silent.
The teacher shouted,
“Yes, it is equal!”

The student laughed,
“If one human being was one unit,
the one who had power and money would be greater than the poor one
who had nothing but a kind heart.
If one human being was one unit,
the one who was white would be greater than the one who was black.
If one human being was one unit,
equality would be ruined.
If one were equal to one
how would it be possible for the rich to get richer?
Or who would build China’s wall?
If one were equal to one,
who would die of poverty?
or who would die of lashing?
If one were equal to one,
who would imprison the liberals?”

The teacher cried:
“Please write in your notebooks
one is not equal to one.”

Abdy Javadzadeh notes in Iranian Irony: Marxists Becoming Muslim that Golsorkhi’s lyrical self-vindication — one could hardly call it a “defense” addressed to the parameters of a court that he openly scorned — “spoke volumes on how Marxism developed within the Iranian opposition,” marrying the language of revolution with that of Islam.

“Life is nothing but a struggle for your belief.”

I will begin my talk with a quotation from Hussein, the great martyr of the people of the Middle East. I, a Marxist-Leninist, have found, for the first time, social justice in the school of Islam and then reached socialism. In this court, I am not bargaining for my life or even my life span. I am but a drop in the great struggle of the Iranian people … I am not bargaining for my life, because I am the child of a fighting people.

The real Islam in Iran has always played its part in liberation movements … When Marx says, in a class society, wealth is accumulated on one side and poverty, hunger, and misery on the other, whilst the producer of wealth is the poor, and Ali says, a castle will not be built unless thousands become poor, we cannot deny that there are great similarities. This is the juncture of history in which we can claim Ali to be the world’s first socialist … and we too approve of such Islam, the Islam of Hussein.

Golsorkhi also scored points by dunking on the military brass sitting in judgment — shooting back at the chief judge when admonished to stay on topic, “Don’t you give me any orders. Go and order your corporals and squadron leaders.”

The more you attack me the more I pride myself, for the further I am from you the closer I am to the people. The more your hatred for my beliefs, the stronger the kindness and support of the people. Even if you bury me — and you certainly will — people will make flags and songs from my corpse.

For his part, Daneshian kept to a more straightforward secular-revolutionary tone.

Millions of people in the armed forces, without having an active role in society or production, are busy in a useless game … such force has no other purpose than the suppression of people’s voice of liberation. The shootings of farmers, peasants, and people’s fighters are their principle duty … Liberated people, social movements on their way to liberation, reverberates the news of shedding poverty, corruption and injustice in the world.

Three others condemned with them were not so eager as our principals to embrace revolutionary martyrdom, and bent the knee to the Shah in exchange for their lives.

* The name “Golsorkhi” means “rose bush”. According to Iranian cleric Mohammad-Ali Abtahi — popularly known as the “blogging mullah” — the censors at the time proceeded to suppress a forthcoming children’s book with the entirely coincidental title We Wake the Rose Bush as potentially Golsorkhi-sympathetic. “In a country where a colonel is running the cultural section, how can you answer such reasoning?”

** The Che analogy was drawn by Hooman Majd in The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, noting that “his bravery … only served to make him a hero and a symbol of the Shah’s merciless dictatorship.”

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1950: Shooting on Seoul’s Execution Hill

Add comment December 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1950, South Korean police shot more than 100 alleged Communists on a hill outside Seoul. It was just one day amid a weeklong bloodbath that claimed a reported 800 or more, although December 15 was the one that helped to thrust the horrors into public consciousness in the West.

These mass executions occurred in the paroxysm after the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — briefly captured by the United Nations offensive earlier in 1950 — was retaken by Chinese-supported Communist forces in early December.

These were themselves only the most recent installment of numerous indiscriminate mass murders that had scarred the South Korean rear once Chinese intervention in the summer of 1950 turned the tide of the war. A South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation from the 2000s estimated that the collective death toll of countless such executions could “conservatively” run to 100,000-plus: “the worst tragedy of 20th century South Korea,” as one commission member provocatively characterized it.

In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic twist, many of those rounded up for execution were culled from the rolls of the “National Guidance League”, an organ set up by the Seoul government to re-educate former leftists. Enlistment to the League was incentivized by extra rations pushed by local officials with signup quotas to make, and that was just great for everyone until that same state decided to turn it into an expedient roster of fifth columnists.

“The authorities pressed us to join the league,” one aged survivor said at a 2009 news conference. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

American officials directing the South Korean army downplayed all this as it was occurring. Even when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea remained under the dictatorial administration of its wartime president Syngman Rhee, whose commitment to strangling leftist dissent extended so far as hanging the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. For many years the wartime massacres could be no more than murmured at.

The chaos of war helped bring the executions to momentary prominence in December 1950, however, when western conscripts bivouacked down adjacent to the capital’s “execution hill” and were aghast to witness what was happening there.

“A wave of disgust and anger swept through American and British troops who either have witnessed or heard the firing squads in action in the Seoul area during the last two days,” reported the United Press on December 17, 1950. (via the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times of the same date) On Friday, December 15, those soldiers “were horrified upon seeing truckloads of old men, women, youths and several children lined up before open graves and shot down by South Korean military police with rifles and machineguns.

“One American captain George Graff reported he kicked aside the dirt lightly covering one of the bodies and found it still twitching.”

Deeply shocked, one British soldier wrote to the government “wondering which side was right in Korea.”

Revulsion among these forces and their newspaper-reading publics threatened to badly erode support for the mission — a point made forcefully by the Archbishop of York in a letter to the London Times (December 20, 1950):

Sir, —

I hope that our Government will convey to the South Korean Government the horror and detestation with which the people of this country have read the accounts of the wholesale execution of suspected Communist sympathizers. Your Correspondent says it is reported that some of the murdered women “carried babies on their backs.” If these barbarous executions continue, all sympathy with South Korea will vanish, and instead there will be a general demand that the forces of the United Nations should no longer be used to protect a Government responsible for these atrocities. I am glad to see that British soldiers on the spot already have shown their anger at these killings.

Yours faithfully,
Cyril Ebor
Bishopthorpe, York, Dec. 18

Christian ministers in Korea likewise raised alarm over these atrocities with both United Nations and South Korean authorities. Due regard for humanity and/or public opinion led the United Nations on December 17th to exhume the execution grounds looking for evidence of child executions. But the very same day, according to the U.P. (via the Cleveland Plain Delaer, Dec. 18, 1950),

South Koreans hauled another batch of prisoners to snow-covered “Execution Hill” this afternoon and shot them.

Evidently to escape the eyes of angry American G.I.s and British Tommies, the prisoners apparently were forced to lie down in trenches where they were killed.

The new executions occurred only two hours after U.N. observers had supervised an exhumation of bodies lying in four trench-like graves on the hill and after 29th Brigade Commander Tom Brodie had told his officers he was not prepared to tolerate further executions in his area.

As layer after layer of bodies were disinterred from the mountain graveyard, Fusillier Capt. Bill Ellery, tall, moustached British officer, said coldly and precisely what all watching British and American troops were thinking.

“We don’t do this sort of thing in my country.”

A South Korean apologized. The prisons were so crowded with Communists sentenced to death that Execution Hill was the only solution.

“There are so many to execute,” he said.

An abatement of visible-to-western-press executions and the cosmetic expedient of a small Christmas amnesty appears to have stanched the immediate threat to homefront support for the war — which would continue for another two and a half years.

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1945: Majda Vrhovnik, Slovenian resistance

Add comment May 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Slovene resistance member Majda Vrhovnik was executed by the Gestapo in Klagenfurt, days before the end of World War II.

A University of Ljubljana medical student and Communist destined to be honored as a national hero of Yugoslavia, Vrhovnik (English Wikipedia entry | Slovenian) joined the underground resistance when the Nazis occupied Yugoslvia in 1941. She’d spend the bulk of the war years producing and distributing illicit anti-occupation propaganda but by war’s end she had been detailed to nearby Klagenfurt — a heavily Slovene city just over the border in Austria.

She was finally caught there and arrested on February 28, 1945, and shot in prison even as Klagenfurt awaited Allied occupation which would arrive on May 8.

Her credentials as a patriotic martyr — there’s a Majda Vrhovnik school named for her — would surface her name in 1988 in connection with an affair that helped begin the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic statelets, when an opposition journalist published a censored article under the pseudonym “Majda Vrhovnik”.

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1919: Rudolf Egelhofer, Bavarian Soviet commandante

Add comment May 3rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1919, the commandante of the “Red Army” of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic was shot by the German soldiers and Freikorps that had just overrun the revolutionary republic.

The son of a pauper basketweaver, Rudolf Egelhofer enlisted in the navy in World War I and was involved in a naval revolt in the war’s closing days. Transplanting to Munich in the chaotic postwar environment, Egelhofer joined the Communist Party and became a fixture of the revolutionary movement; the socialist writer Oskar Maria Graf would record of Egelhofer’s stature at a parade that he stood “determined and sincere, in a sailor’s uniform, sometimes raising his fist. Those who heard him, had to believe in him.”

After a left-wing coup claimed Bavaria in early April, Egelhofer’s magnetism was entrusted with the impossible task of organizing an armed forces for the Soviet before Munich went the way of the Paris Commune. But the Bavarian Soviet was overwhelmed in less than a month.

In the first days of May, Egelhofer’s fate was shared by something like 700 supporters of the defeated Soviet.

The fierce “victim” dominates his executioner in Execution by Firing Squad of the Sailor Egelhofer, by Heinrich Ehmsen (1931). This is only the central panel of a triptych depicting the White storming of Red Munich; the piece is described in this post.

Ehmsen has a similar idea about relative stature at work in Execution by Firing Squad (Red Jacket) (1919).

Though little memorialized at the place of his glory and martyrdom — which fell on the western side of the Iron Curtain — numerous East Germany streets, public buildings, and naval vessels bore Egelhofer’s name in tribute during the Cold War.

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

3 comments February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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1944: Missak Manouchian and 21 French Resistance members, l’Affiche Rouge

Add comment February 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1944, 22 members of the anti-Nazi French Resistance’s “immigrant movement” Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d’œuvre immigrée (FTP-MOI) were executed by firing squad on the outskirts of Paris.

Comprised of foreign communists whose backgrounds amply motivated them to desperate resistance, FTP-MOI was a notably aggressive partisan unit; a few months before this date’s executions, it had stunningly assassinated SS Col. Julius Ritter on the streets of Paris. Risky tactics, including larger-scale operations like the one that claimed Ritter (these required more partisans to know each other) entailed greater risk of penetration, and the November 1943 arrest of the Armenian commander Missak Manouchian and his group devastated FTP-MOI. After the customary interlude of torture, these were subjected to a show trial with 23 condemned to execution.*

As a gaggle of foreign terrorists, heavily Semitic, this clique looked to the occupation like a marvelous tar with which to blacken the Resistance. To that end the Germans produced a scarlet poster denouncing the Resistance as an “Army of Crime,” its soldiery labeled with strange names and alien nationalities converging on the swarthy Manouchian.**

Soon known as l’Affiche Rouge, the poster instead apotheosized its subjects. In the postwar period it became an emblem of the best of the Resistance — its multinational unity, France as an idea powerful enough that men and women of distant birth would give their lives for her. (Not to mention the postwar French Communists’ claim on le parti des fusillés.)

To this day in France, the backfiring propaganda sheet is one of the best-recognized artifacts of the Resistance.

The executions were naturally conducted quietly; the Germans strictly forbade public access to or photography of Resistance heroes in their martyrdoms for obvious reasons.

That made it especially surprising when a few pictures of this execution surfaced recently, surreptitiously snapped from an overlooking vantage by German motorbike officer Clemens Rüter, who kept them hidden for decades. They are to date the only known World War II photos of French Resistance members being executed.

* The 23rd, and the only woman in the group, was Romanian Olga Bancic, also known by the nom de guerre Pierrette; she was not shot on this date but deported to Stuttgart and beheaded there on May 10, 1944. There was also a 24th, a man named Migatulski, who was initially part of the same trial; he was instead remanded to French custody. (See coverage in the collaborationist La Matin from Feb. 19, 1944 and Feb. 22, 1944.)

** We’ve noted before that a Polish Jew named Joseph Epstein who was part of the same cell (and a prime candidate for racist demagoguing) avoided a place on l’Affiche Rouge thanks to his preternatural talent for remaining mum under interrogation.

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1941: Francisc Panet

Add comment November 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.

A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.

While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.

But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.

Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.

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1979: Nur Muhammad Taraki, grandfather of the Afghan War

Add comment September 14th, 2016 Headsman

When our party took over political power, the exploiting classes and reactionary forces went into action. The only rusty and antiquated tool that they use against us is preaching in the name of faith and religion against the progressive movement of our homeland.

-Nur Muhammad Taraki (via)

On this date in 1979, Afghanistan’s Communist ruler Nur Muhammad Taraki was deposed and summarily executed (or just murdered, if you like: he was held down and suffocated with pillows) by his defense minister.

The writer whom the Soviets had once hailed as “Afghanistan’s Maxim Gorky” had been one of the most prominent Communist leaders in Afghanistan for a generation by the time he led a coup against Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978. It was Taraki who inaugurated the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and so came to number among the USSR’s accidental gravediggers.

Like any proper Red he dreamt a far grander legacy: his program for Afghanistan featured wide-ranging land reform, education, and women’s rights. But he would quickly discover that the resistance to these aggressive changes wielded tools far less antiquated than expected.*

The rebellion that broke out against Taraki in 1978 — joining rural magnates, religious traditionalists, ideological anti-Communists, and people pissed off about the new government’s egregious human rights abuses — is basically the same war that’s still raging there today.

To Moscow’s credit, the morass-detector went to high alert when Taraki first began soliciting Kremlin aid. Soviet Foreign Minister Alexei Kosygin gave a sharp and apt refusal when Taraki first invited his Russian allies to come visit that graveyard of empires:

It would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. … If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.

You know how they say you should usually obey your first instinct?

Taraki in the end wheedled very little by way of Russian props for his regime. It was only with his downfall that events took a different turn — for the aide who overthrew and then killed Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, was not half so trusted in the USSR as his predecessor. Before the year was out, Moscow had worriedly (and somewhat impulsively) begun committing its divisions into that self-destructive struggle Kosygin had warned about, vainly trying to manage the deteriorating situation. (Russia also overthrew and executed Amin into the bargain.)

* It also didn’t help Taraki that his own Communist movement was sharply divided. Members of the rival faction were widely purged or driven to exile in 1978-79; a notable exemplar of the exiled group was Mohammad Najibullah, who became president in the late 1980s and ended up being lynched when the Taliban took over in 1996.

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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